I’ve realized something recently: Fiction changes my mind on important topics more often than non-fiction does. While this wasn’t always the case, I now gain more from a scene than I do from deduction. I find that it takes knowledge out of a single dimension and adds many more to it.
The fiction that most resonates is a sub-section of Russian literature from their Golden Age. I’ve read the masterpieces of both Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky a few times. With each attempt, I find myself grappling with a new nuance, a different moment, something I glossed over the time before.
More specifically, what I like is that their novels are honest in a way that most fiction isn’t and real in a way that non-fiction just can’t be. There is both goodness and sin, reduction and complexity, certainty and uncertainty — all often within the same character. Rarely is there anybody that embodies only heroic qualities alone, and quite often, even characters you start off thinking of as despicable show you moments of brightness later on.
One of the few exceptions to this rule is the character of Alyosha Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. On the surface, it’s a book set around the title family and the murder mystery that they find themselves embroiled in, but as you read on, it becomes clear that this isn’t about the murder at all; it’s a deeply philosophical account of how humans deal with questions of morality — questions of how to live in this world.
Alyosha is a close physical embodiment of the metaphysical force of love that poets, saints, and philosophers have talked about since the dawn of time. He observes everything but judges nothing. He lives in a world of sin but doesn’t succumb to it. He sees suffering but maintains that it can and will be overcome if he does his part.
There is a strange naivete that lingers around his character. This is despite both Dostoevsky and the other characters in the novel treating him with a kind of respect that can’t be feigned. The first time I read the book, I didn’t get it. But this time, something clicked.
The question of how to live in this world has been asked many times, and it will likely continue to be asked until the day it can no longer be asked.
What makes this question complex isn’t just that we live in a world of inherent uncertainty that makes decision-making opaque — although that is a partial contributor — but more so, it’s complex because the question assumes interactions with other agents that have both conflicting and complementary goals to us.
In a hypothetical world where you are the only living thing that exists, the answer becomes a little more clear: live in such a way that maximizes your ability to thrive, directly iterating your decisions based on how your — and only your — conscious experience manifests. In this reality, there is only the survival instinct. Simply: it’s you against the world.
This hypothetical world, however, doesn’t map to the actual world, one in which not only other people, other conscious beings, exist but one that is also dominated by the fact that it is the interactions between these people that determines everything from how we move matter about to create technology to how we connect with one another to nurture shared cultures.
Humans are a social animal. Along with our instinct for self-preservation, we also have an instinct to belong, to get along with each other, so that the sum of our efforts produce an outcome that is greater than what we would have been able to produce by acting in our own self-interest. Evolution has directly tied our ability to survive to our ability to cooperate.
In this sense, questions of morality, at least those that only pertain to human interactions, are really questions of how we balance our innate need to compete to survive with our innate need to cooperate to thrive. And while our instinct for self-preservation is quite strong, it’s balanced by a psyche that can’t truly find satisfaction unless it also belongs — unless it makes itself vulnerable for the greater good of togetherness.
Any great relationship, between people, between entities, requires this kind of vulnerability, and morality is our attempt at codifying how we should go about expressing this vulnerability in our interactions on a societal scale.
One of the scenes that stood out to me this time when I read Brothers Karamazov was the one in which Alyosha goes to visit a family in the town, specifically the husband, who has been mistreated by his older brother, Dmitri, in one of his fits of sensualist rage.
Dmitri had taken the man and dragged him across town by his beard, humiliating him in front of both the neighbors and his family. In fact, one of the man’s children had chased after Dmitri begging him to let his father go, which had ended up being a further source of humiliation, later leading to the teasing and the bullying of the child among his classmates.
When Alyosha is told about this, he makes his way down to their residence to help make some of it right.
As he arrives, he sees a family going through considerable struggle: The son, the child, who Alyosha has at this point had a previous encounter with is bedridden with an illness, one of his daughters has a painful hunchback, and the rest of them, too, are — at best — just making it by.
At first, everyone is apprehensive of Alyosha’s arrival, but as they sense his intentions and his genuine concern for their circumstances, the man, at least, begins to slowly warm up, and they decide to go out for a walk.
As they walk, they begin to talk. The man fills in the details of the events that have occurred, and Alyosha patiently empathizes with him, making promises that he will do whatever he can to have his brother make up for what he did. Even though the man doesn’t absolve Dmitri from his actions, continuing to share how the event impacted and embarrassed his family and his name, he does come to trust Alyosha.
Towards the end of their walk, Alyosha sees his opportunity to offer what he has really come for: two hundred roubles, to help the man, who doesn’t have an income, get back on his feet and give his family much-needed help.
Right away, a spark of disbelief makes its way into the man’s eyes. That sum, a life-changing amount, is more than he has made in the last four years, and it’s the solution to all of his problems: taking his family and moving them to another town for a new start, treating his daughter’s pain, and putting enough food on the table to get all of them by.
Trusting Alyosha’s intentions, the man emotionally goes on and on about how much of an impact this will make. He thanks him, again and again. But then, in one sudden moment, everything changes. Surprising both himself and Alyosha, the man takes the notes, throws them on the ground and stomps on them until they are covered by the dirt and then leaves.
If morality is an attempt at codifying the management of vulnerability, it’s really a problem of game theory, which is the study of strategic interactions between rational decision-makers.
For us to cooperate, or play a positive-sum game, in which every participant gains something, we have to first lower the shield that otherwise protects us from the damage done by other agents pursuing their own self-interest. Risk-taking of this sort is necessary for the greater good of everyone.
Risk-taking, however, is also a function of zero-sum games, the competitive ones, where you are trying to survive at the expense of someone else. In these instances, life itself is a risk, and you either take the risk or you perish.
Over the last 100,000 years, our relationship to our ecology has changed drastically. We evolved to hunt and gather, and the conflict between competition and cooperation was very real, and it oscillated based on need that was environment-dependent. But in the last few 10,000 years, we have seen an interesting development: We have moved away from a world of scarcity to a world of relative abundance.
This development has created an asymmetry, where competition, although still important, carries a greater risk than cooperation. We have more, so we can share more, and that’s given us the ability to bring more people into an ecology of shared resources and commitments. The evolution of our morality has, in large part, been driven by this simple fact: We can now easily take care of more people, so as a result, we’ve become better people.
The only problem is that the ancient feelings of vulnerability, and thus shame, that expose us when we want to cooperate with other people overreact relative to the modern risk. As a hunter, if you lowered your shield to cooperate with another hunter, you may have formed a group, true, but he may also have killed you, and that’s a big risk. Feelings of vulnerability and shame were good signals to assure safety.
In the modern world, where our strategic interactions have changed form, these same signals of vulnerability and shame actually hold us back. Rejection is no longer a matter of life and death, but cooperation still carries the same, or perhaps even greater, reward.
Today, those who can best manage their vulnerability, and the feelings of shame that accompany them, are best exposed to asymmetric upsides.
When Alyosha later reflects on why the man he offered money to suddenly responded the way he did, Dostoevsky truly shines, showing how deep his understanding of the human psyche goes.
Alyosha realizes that, until that last moment, even the man himself didn’t know that he was going to do what he did and that he was genuinely pleased and grateful to be able to give his family a better life. What changed, however, was that he realized that he had fully shown his delight, letting himself laugh and cry in front of Alyosha, as he told him how much of an impact this simple act would have on his life. With that, he was mortified.
In his complete nakedness, he had given up his pride, exposing all of his vulnerabilities, and once that realization set in, he was overcome with so much shame that he couldn’t even accept the love and the kindness that was being presented to him. Instead, rather than ease the suffering of his family with the gift, he chose to hate Alyosha, to spite him, as a way to distract from the nakedness that he had bared in front of him.
Nothing about this response, in this particular situation, is rational or honorable (though we often convince ourselves otherwise). Alyosha notes how if that moment had played out even slightly differently, sparing some of the man’s pride, he would have taken the money, and in fact, he will in the future, too, when it is presented in a different context.
One of modernity’s gifts is that, in spite of its faults, it has created a world in which love is more abundant. We now have luxuries that we didn’t have 100,000 years ago, and that basic fact has allowed us to expand our circle of empathy and cooperation, letting us move beyond our violent natures. There is simply more to gain for everyone by extending a hand.
The problem, however, is that we still aren’t ready to always accept this love. We feel vulnerable and shameful and proud even when the risk is nothing more than a simple case of rejection, which itself is far rarer than the acceptance we often find on the other side. As a further result, this vulnerability also stops us from giving love.
The reason that I felt a naivete lingering around Alyosha as I read the book was that I, like many others, have a mind that has been exhausted by the tired cliches that tell us how much of everything love is. It’s become difficult to talk about it in an honest way, and it’s even more difficult to listen to without feeling like something is missing from the equation. But what I soon realized — as I have been realizing more and more — is that cliches often contain profound truths that we have simply learned to ignore.
The direction that the world is moving in points to the better nature of our existence. This will happen regardless of any rhetoric of cynicism and general doom, as long as we keep making progress. To give this orientation its due form, however, we also have to do our part. There is far more potential for goodness out there than we are letting ourselves embrace.
This asymmetry favors cooperation and kindness and thoughtfulness and — as tired as it may sound — love. What’s left is for us to find the courage to look past the vulnerabilities that stand in our way.
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